Douglas Brunt has received some auspicious notices for his debut novel, “Ghosts of Manhattan,” which is set against the backdrop of a pre-collapse Wall Street in 2005. Kirkus Reviews called it “A smart shot at the absurdity of Wall Street and the long fall that brought us all down." Publisher’s Weekly hailed the “compulsively readable novel” as “savage, jaded and comical.” Some impressive names contributed blurbs for the book jacket, including Steve Forbes (“Mix together Charles Dickens, Theodore Dreiser and Tom Wolfe….”) and Kid Rock (“Awesomeness”).
But maybe the best review, Brunt told Millionaire Corner, was an email sent to publisher Simon & Schuster’s website by a reader whose own journey took a reckoning similar to the one experienced by “Ghost’s" main character Nick Farmer, a 35 year-old bond trader questioning his life (think Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper or Ryan Reynolds for the movie). The reader himself had been on Wall Street for 25 years. One day, he wrote to Brunt, he was headed to a lunch, when he decided to make a break. “I went to a Harley dealer, got a bike, and pretty much didn’t stop until I got to California,” he said.” I’ve never been happier. You nailed it exactly.”
Nick Farmer works for Bear Stearns. He enjoys an annual salary in the seven figures. But he no longer enjoys the nightlife that is a requisite of the job and is taking a toll on his psyche and his marriage. Nothing succeeds like excess, but at what cost?
“Ghosts of Manhattan” is not a “Devil Wears Prada”-like roman a clef. Brunt is the former CEO of Authentium, an internet security company. For less than two years out of college he did work as a money markets broker in San Francisco. But the book was shaped by stories related to him by friends who worked on Wall Street and who shared their experiences, many of them not printable here. “Going out to dinner with these guys over the decades and hearing these stories was like having a front row seat,” Brunt laughed.
But again; the book is fiction. The scene with the naked football helmet-clad hookers is pure invention, he said. And the seductive blonde financial reporter who smells a scandal in the making at Bear Stearns is in no way based on Fox News journalist, “America Live” anchor Megyn Kelly, to whom Brunt is married and has two children.
The book was three years in the making, Brunt said. It started out as the story of a marriage and a career crossroads. As to the latter, Brunt was writing from personal experience. “At the time, I did not love my job and I was working very hard at it,” he said. “My wife also previously made a big career change from law to journalism. But I decided to make Nick a Wall Street bond trader because I thought it would set up the conflicts I wanted to explore.”
One of them, he said, is the money and the extravagant and excessive lifestyle it affords. “You have this lifestyle creep,” Brunt said. “You have the house in the Hamptons and your kids enrolled in this and that, and then you have the creep of expenses to match the lifestyle. It’s tough to make a break.”
This makes “Ghost of Manhattan” not just a Wall Street story. Nick could have been an unhappy lawyer or Hollywood executive,” Brunt agreed. It is, at its core, more a redemption story. “I hope readers take away from the book the importance of the decisions that you make in the pursuit of happiness,” he offered. “As we get older, hopefully, we migrate to our passions and the things that make us happy. It doesn’t always happen organically. Sometimes you need to stop and put some energy into self-reflection. You need to make a sharp break and take a leap of faith and that can be scary. Nick faces a very scary leap away from this career that is providing for him and his family. The money is tied to his self-worth, but it’s corroding every other aspect of his values.”
Wall Street has taken “a PR beating” since the collapse, Brunt observed, and it can be seen in portrayals of the life in books and movies. “Arbitrage” starring Richard Gere and “Margin Call” are recent examples of withering takes on Wall Street and its denizens. Some of this is just and some is unjust, Brunt said. “If you look at the traders themselves,” he said, “they were just doing their jobs and performing in a way according to their job descriptions which are set to maximize the bonus. Making three, five, or 10 million dollars, they are pretty far up the totem pole, but they are not the guys making managerial or executive decisions for the firm.”
Today, Brunt said, the hubris is gone a little bit from Wall Street. The vilification combined with new regulations “has hindered certain trading activity,” he said. “There are aspects of Wall Street not making as much money. The excessive lifestyle, too, is still there, but that goes up and down in relation to bonuses. Those are down, but they are still making lots of money on Wall Street.”
As for Brunt and his own career course correction, writing is a lifelong passion he feels fortunate to be pursuing full time. “I love entrepreneurship,” he said. “I loved running a company, but toward the end, I was not satisfied. There was a lot of travel and a lot of stress. I was good at it, but it was not my passion. I was ready to try writing, which for me was the dream. So far, it’s working out.”
Promoting his book, Brunt has gotten some high-profile exposure. Rush Limbaugh gave the book a generous plug. Brunt appeared on “Lou Dobbs Tonight” and was charmingly interviewed by his wife on “America Live.” Which gave his book the biggest bump?
“Megyn,” he said without a moment’s hesitation. “It’s true. The book’s highest rank at the time on Amazon.com was Oct. 5, the day of her show.”
Donald Liebenson writes news and features for Millionaire Corner. He has been published in the Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Los Angeles Times, Fiscal Times, Entertainment Weekly, Huffington Post, and other outlets. He has also served as a marketing writer for Chicago-based Questar Entertainment and distributor Baker & Taylor.
A graduate of the University of Southern California, he is married with a college-age son. He also writes extensively about entertainment.